In Utah, eBay’s data center will run off the grid
By JAMES GLANZ
New York TimesFirst published Jun 21 2012 01:00PM
The data center that eBay plans to build in Utah to handle its billions of dollars in retail transactions will draw its power from alternative-energy fuel cells rather than the national power grid, which is heavily dependent on coal plants.
It will be the first major tech company to use alternative power as a primary source for energy-hungry data centers, although the new center will connect to the electricity grid for backup. Environmental groups have issued a series of rebukes to Internet companies because of their heavy reliance on coal-fired power to run their centers.
Some companies already use alternative energy to run the data centers that power social networks, stream entertainment or manage commercial transactions, but only as a supplemental source.
The new eBay data center in South Jordan will use about 6 million watts of power generated on-site by fuel cells, which are a substantially cleaner and more efficient source of energy than coal. The company also operates PayPal, the online payment service, out of the South Jordan site. Bloom Energy, a private company in Sunnyvale, Calif., will make the fuel cells.
The cells are essentially large batteries whose charge is maintained by the hydrocarbon energy contained in natural gas. Fuel cells by various manufacturers have become more economically competitive with grid power in recent years as the price of natural gas has plummeted.
Although the Bloom cells function at high temperatures internally, the charge is maintained by chemical reactions, not combustion, so the efficiencies are much higher than at an ordinary power plant. The reactions produce mainly carbon dioxide and water. By generating power on-site, the fuel cells also save energy that is normally dissipated as electricity runs though transmission lines.
The new center will double the size of an existing data center, which will still be on the grid. The grid will serve mainly as a backup power source for the new center. Even so, the fuel cells will account for less than 15 percent of the energy needs of all eBay data centers around the country — a clue that the industry is likely to remain deeply dependent on the grid and its energy mix indefinitely.
"Does it have risk? Sure. Did it require investment? Sure. But it’s an investment and a risk that is worth taking," said John Donahoe, president and CEO of eBay. Donahoe and KR Sridhar, co-founder and CEO of Bloom Energy, confirmed the fuel cell plans. EBay signed an agreement last week with Bloom for the fuel cells.
Haresh Kamath, program manager for energy storage and distributed generation at the Electric Power Research Institute, said that it was still unknown how the fuel cells would hold up.
"Purely from a power-reliability standpoint, it’ll be interesting to see how this proceeds," Kamath said. "I’m glad that somebody is trying to do this."
Sridhar sought to dispel those doubts, saying that the Bloom cells were specifically designed so that no simple string of failures could bring a system down. Thirty Bloom cells will be installed at the eBay data center.
Arrays of various sizes are in use by more than 20 major organizations, including FedEx, Walmart, AT&T and Kaiser Permanente. But Peter Gross, vice president of mission critical systems at Bloom, said that nothing was comparable to the data center redesign undertaken by eBay. That redesign, Gross said, is "an extraordinary step to do something that has never been done before."
Dean Nelson, the vice president of global foundation services at eBay, who is in charge of data centers, said that the shift demanded a radical redesign, because nearly all data centers now draw their main power from the grid and must have complex backup systems — absent in the new concept — available in case of a blackout.
"It is really throwing out the way people have done it in the past," Nelson said. "You can build a better mousetrap."
The Bloom cells can also run on so-called biogas, a byproduct of landfills and animal waste at large industrial farms. Annie Lescroart, an eBay spokeswoman, said that in another bow to the environment, the company would pay a premium to enable the production of biogas somewhere in the United States in amounts comparable to its gas usage in South Jordan.
The company relies on large amounts of computing power to carry out its mission of connecting buyers and sellers among its 102 million active users. The company estimates that through its services, a men’s necktie is sold every 25 seconds, a pair of women’s jeans every 17 seconds, and a piece of golf equipment every 7.1 seconds. It handled $69 billion in transactions in 2011.
In all, Nelson said, transactions flow through eBay’s computers at the rate of roughly $2,000 a second. Those computers use large amounts of energy. EBay estimates that its data centers will consume an average of 43 million watts in 2012. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that in the United States, 1 million watts powers about 600 homes.
Particularly on the Utah grid, that energy is supplied mostly by coal power, according to the research institute. "The energy mix there is what it is, and it’s not pretty," said Gary Cook, an information technology analyst at Greenpeace who has assessed the industry’s energy appetite.
Moving some of that load to fuel cells from the grid, Cook said, would be a major shift. "Other companies would be wise, if they’re serious about their carbon footprint, to do so as well," he said.